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The Glittering Mountains of Canada
Chapter X. Nineteenth Century Speculation in Regard to Altitude at Athabaska Pass

“The adventure and sport of exploration are but a fleeting record compared with contributions to knowledge, for they are incidents on the way and not the goal of exploratory research

Isaiah Bowman

Dr. Hector, of the Palliser Expedition, has summed up the traffic across the Athabaska Pass; writing, “As late as 1853 there was a communication at two seasons by this post (Jasper House) with the Columbia district. In March, when the snow had acquired a crust, the express, with letters and accounts, started from Edmonton by the route I had just followed, and continued on to the Boat Encampment, to which place, by the time they arrived, owing to the earlier spring on the west side of the mountain, the brigade of boats had ascended from Vancouver. The mail from the western department was then exchanged, and taken back to Edmonton, and thence to Norway House along with the Jasper furs.

“The second time of communication was in the autumn, after the Saskatchewan brigade returned to Edmonton in the beginning of September, upon which the officers and men bound for the western department, taking with them the subsidy of otter skins that the Company annually paid the Russian Government for the rent of the N. W. coast, crossed the portage to Fort Assiniboine, then ascended the Athabasca in boats to Jasper House, with pack-horses, reached the Boat Encampment, and then descended the Columbia to Vancouver, where they arrived generally about the 1st of November. The journey from York Factory to Hudson’s Bay on the Pacific coast by this route generally occupied three and a half months, and involved an amount of hardship and toil that cannot be appreciated by those who have not seen boat travelling in these territories.”

Nearly every individual who has left a descriptive record of the Athabaska Pass region, seems to have indulged in speculation as to the altitude of the nearby mountains. Thus we find David Thompson stating, “To ascertain the height of the Rocky Mountains above the level of the Ocean had long occupied my attention, but without any satisfaction to myself. At the greatest elevation of the passage across the Mountains by the Athabasca River, the point by boiling water gave 11,000 feet, and the peaks of the Mountains are full 7000 feet above this passage, and the general height may be fairly taken at 18,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean.”

James Renwick, professor of chemistry and physics at Columbia College, communicated, in 1836, the following information to Washington Irving: “In conversation with Simon M’Gillivray, Esq., a partner of the Northwest company, he stated to me his impression, that the mountains in the vicinity of the route pursued by the traders of that company, were nearly as high as the Himalayas. He had himself crossed by this route, seen the snowy summits of the peaks and experienced a degree of cold which required a spirit thermometer to indicate it. His authority for the estimation of the heights was a gentleman who had been employed for several years as surveyor of that company. This conversation occurred about sixteen years hence.

“A year or two afterwards, I had the pleasure of dining, at Major Delafield’s, with Mr. Thompson, the gentleman referred to by Mr. M’Gillivray. I inquired of him in relation to the circumstances mentioned by Mr. M’Gillivray, and he stated that, by joint means of the barometer and trigonometric measurements, he had discovered the height of one of the mountains to be about twenty-five thousand feet, and there were others of nearly the same height in the vicinity.”

It may be calculated from this, that Thompson made his statement to Renwick about 1822; and, if the material be reliable, it would indicate that Thompson was responsible for the exaggerated altitudes. At least this dating of his statement precedes the crossing of Athabaska Pass by either Sir George Simpson or David Douglas.

While it has been supposed that Thompson later obtained certain of his figures for altitude from Sir George Simpson, there was another gentleman named Simpson, who may have been equally responsible for the erroneous figures. Thomas Drummond, Assistant Naturalist to the Second Franklin Expedition, makes the following statement in his journal: “The kindness of Lieut. Simpson, R. N., who was at this time surveying the country, gave me the opportunity of ascertaining the latitude of the commencement and termination of the Rocky Mountain Portage. The height of one of the mountains, taken from the commencement of the Portage, Lieut. Simpson reckons at 5900 feet above its apparent base, and he thinks that the altitude of the Rocky Mountains may be stated at about 16,000 feet above the sea.”

In none of the literature consulted is there the slightest evidence that David Thompson and Sir George Simpson ever met. David Douglas, however, became acquainted with Sir George, at Norway House, in 1827.

Franchere, more conservative, comes nearer the truth: “The geographer Pinkerton is assuredly mistaken, when he gives these mountains an elevation of but three thousand feet above the level of the sea; from my own observations I would not hesitate to give them six thousand; we attained, in crossing them, an elevation probably of fifteen hundred feet above the valleys, and were not, perhaps, nearer than half way of their total height, while the valleys themselves must be considerably elevated above the level of the Pacific, considering the prodigious number of rapids and falls which are met with in the Columbia, from the first falls to Canoe River.

“Be that as it may, if these mountains yield to the Andes in elevation and extent, they very much surpass in both respects the Appalachian chain, regarded until recently as the principal mountains of North America; they give rise, accordingly, to an infinity of streams, and to the greatest rivers of the continent.”

Ross Cox3 goes to the other extreme: “The height of the Rocky Mountains varies considerably. The table land which we crossed I should take to be about 11,000 feet above the level of the sea. From the immense number of rapids we had to cross in ascending the Columbia, and its precipitous bed above the lakes, I consider that at their base the mountains cannot be much under 8000 feet above the level of the Pacific; and from the valley of Canoe River to the level parts of the heights of land cannot be less than 3000 feet, but the actual altitude of their highest summits must be much greater. They are covered with eternal snow and ice, and will probably be forever inaccessible to man.” Thus we see that by the time David Douglas crossed the pass, in 1827, there was already a well-established tradition as to the exalted heights supposed to flank the Height of Land. Douglas saw the mountains under the snow conditions preceding spring, and this may also have added to his perplexity. Too much blame, therefore, must not be placed upon Douglas as the originator of the over-estimated figures of altitude, and we had best be content to retain Douglas’ accounts of his doings as a charming historic story, and not inquire too earnestly into the facts of the case.

Douglas wrote two journals—a lengthy one, on the trail; and a shorter, done apparently after his return to England. From the shorter journal we quote: “After Breakfast, about one o’clock, being well refreshed, I set out with the view of ascending what appeared to be the highest peak on the North or left-hand side. The height from its apparent base exceeds 6000 feet, 17000 feet above the level of the sea.

“After passing over the lower ridge of about 200 feet, by far the most difficult and fatiguing part, on snow-shoes, there was a crust on the snow over which I walked with the greatest ease. A few mosses and lichens, Andreae and Jungermannlae, were seen. At the elevation of 4800 feet vegetation no longer exists. Not so much as a lichen of any kind to be seen 1200 feet of eternal ice. The view from the summit is of that cast too awful to afford pleasure. Nothing as far as the eye can reach in every direction but mountains towering above each other rugged beyond description; the dazzling reflections from the snow, and the rainbow-like tints of the shattered fragments, together with the enormous icicles suspended from the perpendicular rocks and the majestic but terrible avalanche hurtling down from the southerly exposed rocks producing a crash and groans through the distant Valleys only equalled by an earthquake. Such gives us a sense of the stupendous and wondrous works of the Almighty. This peak, the highest yet known in the Northern Continent of America, I felt a sincere pleasure in naming MOUNT BROWN, in honor of R. Brown, Esq.,5 the Illustrious Botanist, no less distinguished by the amiable qualities of his refined mind. A little to the South is one nearly of the same height rising more into a sharp point I named MOUNT HOOKER, in honor of my early patron the enlightened and learned Professor of Botany in the University of Glasgow, Dr. Hooker,6 to whose kindness I in great measure, owe my success hitherto in life, and I feel exceedingly glad of an opportunity of recording a simple but sincere token of my kindest regard for him and respect for his profound talent. I was not on this mountain.”

In the lengthy diary the account is simpler, and more accurate: “After Breakfast at one o’clock, being as I conceive on the highest part of the route, I became desirous of ascending one of the peaks and accordingly I set out alone on snow-shoes to that on the left hand or West side, being to all appearances the highest. The labor of ascending the lower part, which is covered with pines, is great beyond description, sinking on many occasions to the middle. Half-way up vegetation ceases entirely, not so much as a vestige of Moss or Lichen on the stones. Here I found it less laborious as I walked on the hard crust. One-third from the summit it becomes a Mountain of pure ice, sealed over by Nature’s hand a momentous work of Nature’s God. The height from its base may be about 5500 feet: Timber, 2750; a few Mosses and Lichens, 500 more; 1000 feet of perpetual snow; The remainder toward the top 1250, as I have said, glacier with a thin covering of snow on it. The ascent took me 5 hours; descending only one and a quarter. Places where the descent was gradual, I tied my shoes together, making them carry me in turn as a sledge. Sometimes I came down at one spell 500 to 700 feet in the space of one minute and a half. I remained 20 minutes, my Thermometer standing at 18°; and night closing fast in on me and no means of fire, I was reluctantly forced to descend. The sensation I felt is beyond what I can give utterance to. Nothing as far as the eye could perceive, but Mountains such as I was on, and many higher, some rugged beyond description, striking the mind with horror blended with a sense of the wondrous works of the Almighty. The aerial tints of the snow, the heavenly azure of the solid glacier, the rainbow-like hues of their thin broken fragments. The huge mossy icicles hanging from the perpendicular rocks with the snow sliding from the steep southern rocks with increasing velocity, producing a crash and grumbling like the shock of an earthquake, the echo of which resounding in the Valley for several minutes.” Good description this, for a non-mountaineer; exaggerated, of course, but containing no mention of naming the peaks or over-estimation of their altitude as does the short journal. As will be shown (see Appendix G), the latter, embellished at a later time, was not composed in the field but in England and had the names and altitudes added upon information received from outside sources.

Letters from Douglas to William Hooker show that Douglas superintended the map which appeared in Volume I of Flora Boreali Americana. Dated 1829, it is the first map on which Mounts Brown and Hooker appear, and indicates them as flanking either side of the pass. Drummond’s route is marked in red, Parry’s in blue, and Douglas’ in green.

In the “Companion to the Botanical Magazine/m in which Douglas’ journal is transcribed, the copyist has made changes: “Being well rested by one o’clock, I set out with the view of ascending what seemed to be the highest peak on the north. Its height does not appear to be less than 16,000 or 17,000 feet above the level of the sea. After passing over the lower ridge, I came to about 1200 feet of by far the most difficult and fatiguing walking I had ever experienced, and the utmost care was required to tread safely over the crust of snow.”

Thus there have been preserved several versions of what Douglas did. As we shall see later, no one of them accurately fits in with the existing topography of the pass, although the long diary, of the trail, quite probably represents the actual facts as Douglas recalled them.

Archibald McDonald, companion of Sir George Simpson in 1828, kept a journal of their canoe voyage across the Continent, and their crossing through Peace River Pass. In notes added by Malcolm McLeod, editor of this journal, we find the following reference: “The ‘Big Athabasca,’ or Athabasca River proper, draws from the glaciers of Mount Brown, the highest peak (16,600) of the Rocky Mountains, and also from a much lower height called the Miette, not far from the leather or Yellowhead Pass. I have seen, but remember not the glaciers that feed this noble river, having once passed them in very early life and once with ‘thirty feet’ of snow after mid-April, under foot in the pass (Athabasca Pass), the highway, then of the Hudson’s Bay Company, to the Columbia.

De Smet, the priest, is most emphatic of all in his statement: “Upper Athabasca is, unquestionably, the most elevated part of North America. All its mountains are prodigious, and their rocky and snow-capt summits seem to lose themselves in the clouds. At this season, immense masses of snow often become loosened and roll down the mountains’ sides with terrific noises, that resounds throughout these quiet solitudes like distant thunder—so irresistible is the velocity of their descent that they frequently carry with them enormous fragments of rock, and force a passage through the dense forests which cover the base of the mountain. At each hour, the noise of ten avalanches descending at once, breaks upon the ear; on every side we see them precipitated with frightful rapidity.

“From these mountains, the majestic river of the north, the upper branch of the Saskatchewan, the two great forks of the McKenzie, the Athabasca and Peace rivers, the Columbia and Frazer at the west, derive the greater part of their waters.”

Dr. Hector, somewhere in doubt, although more accurate than his predecessors, is influenced by them; for he remarks, “I am inclined to think that none of the Rocky Mountains rise above 13,000 or 13,500 feet, and that my estimate of the height of Mount Murchison, which I made last year is too great.”

Thus we have recorded the varying opinions of travellers, eye-witnesses, regarding the mountain heights of the upper Columbia Valley and of the Athabaska Pass area. Let us now turn our attention to the actual facts of the topography as known at the present time.

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